Tea Leaf Nation

Is China Losing its ‘Last Fair Path’ to Prosperity?

Is China Losing its ‘Last Fair Path’ to Prosperity?

From the look of things, it’s getting harder to be a cheater in China. The antifraud mechanisms used during China’s most recent annual college entrance exam, commonly known as the gaokao, have been compared to counter-terrorism measures. The parallel was not entirely inapt: In early June 2014, when exam fever swept the nation, almost 10 million test-takers walked into test centers equipped with video cameras, ID card scanners, fingerprint machines, airport-style metal detectors, and high-tech monitoring vehicles that could identify radio signals beaming answers inside.

The stakes are high for Chinese teens and their parents because for most children, the gaokao score remains the sole determinant of college acceptance. For all of its problems, the ultra-grueling exam is often hailed as a great equalizer in a country where class stratification has become increasingly rigid. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds find it hard to go head to head with privileged peers. One popular saying on Chinese social network jokes that the gaokao "is the last chance to compete based on your abilities" because "after this, the boys have to compete based on who their daddies are, and the girls have to compete based on how they look." 

But cheaters are undeterred. In lieu of sophisticated chicanery that includes hidden earpieces, invisible ink, and cameras hidden in watches, some have opted for a more old-fashioned shortcut: humans who can be bought with cold hard cash. On June 17, about 10 days after this year’s exams ended, China Central Television (CCTV), the state-owned media behemoth, exposed a large ghostwriting scandal involving 165 people.

In the report, which the network began compiling months before the exam, CCTV journalists traced advertisements recruiting ghostwriters in the bathrooms of well-known universities in Wuhan, a large city in central China, which led to a man calling himself Teacher Li. (Chinese bathroom stall walls often function as ad hoc classified ads for all manner of illicit services.) Li told an undercover reporter, who pretended to be interested in the advertisement, that for his troubles — pretending to be a high school student and taking the exam — the reporter could earn as much as $8,000 for a score that won placement at an elite university, which is approximately the average annual salary in Wuhan. Even a score only sufficient for second-tier university admission would earn him over $3,000, Li added.   

Li claimed that he had bribed proctors to make sure the ghostwriters would pass the fingerprint and photo ID identifications at test centers located in small cities in Henan, an impoverished province in central China. "Imagine these small cities, where the relationship networks are tiny and everyone who matters is in on it," Li expounded to a hidden camera. Li said it takes him about $11,000 to "take care" of the proctors at one test center, and his clients are mostly children of "officials and rich people" in those small cities in Henan. In video taken surreptitiously at the test centers on the day of the exam, the fingerprint machine beeped repeatedly when a ghostwriter tried to pass with a fake fingerprint membrane she wore on her finger, but the proctor did not investigate further. At the end of the two-day exam, all of the ghostwriters that the undercover reporter had contact with completed their assignments without incident. 

After CCTV broadcast the report, the Ministry of Education vowed to punish those involved, including proctors, parents, arrangers, ghostwriters, and the would-be test-takers. Some may face criminal penalties. But catching these ghostwriters may not be enough to stem future cheating scandals because surrogate test-taking does not seem to be a new problem, nor one limited to Henan. Social media users have shared stories of their acquaintances and sometimes themselves involved in similar schemes. 

The uproar over the scandal is a reflection of China’s collective anxiety over the lack of social mobility and fair play. The news is particularly wrenching to those who cling to the belief that the gaokao is one of the last bastions of equal opportunity untainted by money and power. As Zhang Ping, a newspaper editor in Henan, lamented on Weibo, "the last relatively fair path for upward mobility is now blocked."